America—3.5 Million Square Miles of Stuff



           There’s a small motel located off the main road on which I travel daily that has been there for as long as I can remember. It’s the type of place that reminds me of something from another era; where one expects to see congenial men playing checkers over a barrel and waving at the cars as they pass by.

            The motel has outlived the Budget Inn that was kitty-corner across the road, although the large Budget Inn sign still remains years after the inn was leveled. The inn itself has been replaced with an acre or two of blank asphalt fronting endless rows of self-storage units. I keep imagining tired travelers pulling in at the sign, parking their car, and saying to one another, “Well, this is a colossal disappointment.”

            The small motel across the street is still there, though, divided into a series of tidy duplex buildings. They’re almost cabin-like, slumbered under a canopy of trees behind a large in-ground pool. It’s nothing fancy, but I suspect it’s well kept.

            The check-in desk is also the home of the current owners, who must always be ready for arriving guests. Here we are, here’s your key, please enjoy your stay, all for forty-six bucks a night. Not forty-five. Forty-six. The kitchenette is extra, but they have color TV, free HBO, and in a nod to the times, free WiFi. Not a bad deal for the weary traveler for less than fifty bucks. On a hot summer day, it’s not at all uncommon to see bathing-suited nomads catapult through the air and belly flop into the pool, while others lounge around the rim as if they are in Cabo, not caring that they are only a few dozen feet from four lanes of traffic and a Mazda dealership.

            On most weekend nights, a brightly lit neon No shares space with the Vacancy sign, but on weeknights, it doesn’t. During no-vacancythe day, I can often see the housekeeping cart in front of the units as they tidy up the rooms for the next guests. I’ve never had a reason to stop to see what it’s like, but I’m glad it’s still there, and I hope it stays. The past few years have brought a westward creep of car dealers, and it would be a shame to have the place plowed over for yet another generic vendor of automobiles.

            Most days I drive by without giving the motel a second glance, but sometimes I think about it, mostly because I’ve always known it to be there. It’s one of the many local landmarks that are seared into my brain. This is either a casualty or a benefit to living within twenty-five miles of where I sit right now for all of my sixty-plus years. I’ve been here so long that I know what used to be where something else is now, and I’m comfortable with that familiarity. Sometimes I ask myself if that’s good or bad.

           This does help a person such as me who has the sense of direction of one of those squirrels who suddenly realizes that he’s in the middle of traffic, but can’t decide if he should go left, right or straight up. That’s me in a car in an area which I am unfamiliar. I’m that dazed squirrel.

            “Oh, this looks about right,” I’ll say, turning north when I should be heading south, yielding to whatever directional whim looks reasonable. I navigate by benchmarks, yet even so, I drove right by the road that leads to my sister’s house the other day, and kept going a good three miles before I realized this had happened. I suddenly said to my wife, “where the hell am I going?” and she calmly replied, “Should I set the GPS?” It’s not that I didn’t know where my sister’s house was; I simply drove right by the street by a good mile and turned down some other street, completely thinking I was lostheading in the right direction. I then turned into one of the hundreds of faceless subdivisions around here, hoping it would send me closer to where I was supposed to be, but I got completely lost in the ant maze of streets named after shrubbery. I ended up going around in a huge circle, eventually popping out on the same wrong road I started on.

            This all comes into play because my wife and I are at an age where we’re starting to think about what happens next. I love our house and the land that’s around it, but at some point, it simply won’t be practical. It’ll be too big with too much maintenance as other interests and priorities begin to spring up. Sure, active weekends spent weeding and trimming bushes and mowing the lawn can be great fun, but so can going out and doing other things, and the scales are starting to tip a little towards the latter. Do I really want to spend my seventies and eighties mowing the same lawn I’ve mowed thousands of times already?

            The weather here is largely agreeable, even so, the winters can get a little dreary, but I’m not ready for Florida and I don’t think I ever will be. And of course, there are the onerous New York taxes, which are the highest in the nation. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra—if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere for a heck of a lot less.

            When AARP sends out their monthly magazine, there is often an article on the best places to retire, and the town in which I live is never on that list, nor is any other town in the entire state. South Dakota comes up often, yet the only thing I know about South Dakota is that Belle Fourche is the geographical center of the United States. Most of the towns that make these lists look beautiful when I look at them online, but a fancy brochure has fooled me more than once. Brochures can make Binghampton look swanky.

            Mrs. G. and I have traveled a bit, and we’ve seen France, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Canada, most of the Caribbean islands, Alaska and maybe a dozen or so other states in the US. Any one of these places has some quality that would make them a nice place to live. I was especially taken with Alaska, but I also liked the Provence region of France and Berlin was fascinating. Would I move to any one of them? Nope. Why? Well, our family is here. That’s important, but people move all the time, sometimes even far away.

            Which brings up something interesting.

            The other day, Mrs. G. showed me a magazine article she was reading about a couple that had refurbi71677shed an older Airstream trailer. It was towable with an SUV, and the inside had about the same square footage as our spare bedroom. Suddenly the idea of hooking up a small trailer of some kind and taking off had an exciting appeal. Keep a home base where we’re familiar, but see what’s out there. Get lost but in a planned sort of way.

            I don’t know if we’ll ever do it, but our bucket list unexpectedly had a new bullet point, and from where I sit right now, it doesn’t look all that bad. Who knows? Maybe we can stop at one of those small motels somewhere—one with a color TV and a swimming pool—and finally see what that’s all about.


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